3 Food Ingredients Working Double-Time

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Have you ever read the label on food and saw some big words that you’d never seen before? Azodicarbonamide, propylene glycol, sodium benzoate … you can’t pronounce them, and they seem intimidating. Chatter on social media even says a particular ingredient is in other products, like yoga mats! Should you be running in the other direction? Well, hold on.

The ingredients you see in food, whether you can pronounce them or not, are safe. They’re being used for a reason, like preventing the taste of food from souring, keeping food safe from foodborne pathogens, or providing you with vitamins and minerals that your diet is lacking. Lately, non-food products have started using food ingredients that can help make them greener (e.g. biodegradable/compostable) and safer.

Here are a few example of food ingredients that are safely used in food and found in non-food products.

No 1: Azodicarbonamide, also known as Azo. 

You might have first heard of Azo when it was “discovered” to be used in both yoga mats and bread. (Though ridiculous, that supposed scandal was almost worth it for the absurdity of this picture). Azodicarbonamide is an approved ingredient that is used in flour and bread dough, which results in increased and consistent soft texture and flavor. Azo has been safely used for years. Bloggers have tried to claim eating Azo could have respiratory health impacts, but that’s a pretty big distortion. John Coupland, PhD, explained that “Azodicarbonamide itself is safe at the levels used in bread (45 ppm).” He also states that claims about respiratory health are associated with “bulk chemical” levels of Azo—much higher than the amounts we could ever consume in bread. 


No 2: Propylene glycol

Propylene glycol is added as a food ingredient to common products, such as frostings, candies, and baked goods. It is used as a component in natural flavorings to help distribute the flavoring evenly throughout the product. In the human body, it is metabolized into lactic acid. If you do a lot of running, you know it occurs naturally when muscles are worked.

The FDA has deemed propylene glycol to be safe as a food additive.

In addition to its safe use in food, propylene glycol is also used in personal care products such as deodorants, antiperspirants and fragrances. The latest fear-mongering? Decribing propylene glycol as “part of antifreeze.” When most people think of antifreeze, they think of an ingredient that was previously used: ethylene glycol. Ethylene glycol wasn’t safe for consumption, and household pets were getting sick after lapping up antifreeze puddles.

Propylene glycol, a food-quality ingredient, replaced ethylene glycol to make the product safe.

No. 3: Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA)

Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, or EDTA for short, is also used in food products. Despite the intimidating name, EDTA was added last year by the FDA to the list of ingredients that are generally recognized as safe (or “GRAS”).

Originally created as a chelator—a scientific process where ions bind to metal ions—it is found in canned foods, dressings, and drinks as a preservative. It enhances flavor and texture, and prevents gushing in cans and bottles, which is when the contents spew out of the container.

Not to mention, it can also be used as a source of iron for fortification purposes. Fortification is a public health measure that helps address nutrient deficiencies in the public. Iron is needed to carry oxygen to cells in the body, and if you don’t get enough, your muscles and organs many not get enough oxygen, leaving you tired. Women often need more iron due to blood loss during menstruation, and infants need enough iron to support brain development.

But its use doesn’t stop there. It is used in beauty care products such as soaps, shampoos, hair dyes, and lotions. EDTA binds with metal ions, which deactivates them. This helps to preserve the product longer, maintaining its clarity and preventing rancidity.

EDTA has a third function as well: saving lives. Its ability to chelate, or bind, to metal ions makes it a medicine for chelation therapy in the case of metal poisoning.

So now you know! These ingredients have multiple uses that are making lots of products safer and more sustainable. And just think: We can take advantage of this in the other direction as well. Try out yogurt as a face mask, apple cider vinegar as a cleaner, and even olive oil to make your hair soft and shiny.

It’s a go-to for fearmongers to criticize food ingredients that are used in other products. Armed with good information, we can withstand those myths. So the next time you see “ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid” on a food label, you know not to run for the hills, but appreciate that it can prevent your salad dressing from growing dangerous bacteria—and it can safely keep other products fresh and safe as well.


What’s in Your Food: Understanding Common Food Ingredients

Almost 500 Foods Contain The ‘Yoga Mat’ Compound. Should We Care?

This blog includes contributions from Kamilah Guiden.